Herbal Chemistry

A herbalist should be fully aware of details about the pharmacology of herbs, a basic understanding of it is more than enough. Herbs are used for healing the human body, they are considered to be holistic agents, and they are used on a physical and biochemistry level. Many pharmacologists try to find out the constituents of herbs, place them according to their chemical groups and have done numerous researches and have found herbs to be very complex in their characteristics. Herbs contain a huge variety of chemicals like water, inorganic salt, sugars, carbohydrates, proteins that are highly complex, and alkaloids.

Plant Acids:

An example of weak organic acids is generally found among plants, lemon is the perfect example of citric acid. Organic acids can be split into those based on a carbon chain, and those, which contain a carbon ring in their configuration, but what both have in common is the -COOH group. Chain acids are also known as aliphatic acids, which can range from formic acid (the simplest one, found in the stings of the nettles) to the more complex chain acids like valeric acid and citric acid. Valeric acid is being used in sedatives in allopathic medicine.

The ring acids are known as the aromatic acids, they form a crucial pharmacological group. The most uncomplicated aromatic acid is benzoic acid, which is found in foods like cranberries, resins, and balsams, like Peru balsams, gum benzoin, and tolu. These acids are used in antiseptic lotions and ointments and they are also used for antipyretic and diuretic actions. One can cure a chronic bronchial problem just by inhaling these acids.


Alcohols are found in a variety of forms in the plant kingdom, they are mostly a component of volatile oils or sterols, for example, geraniol in attar of rose and the menthol in peppermint oil. Waxes too are also a common form of alcohol. Mixtures of alcohols and fatty acids are generally found on leaves and other parts of the plants. Carnauba wax is acquired from the palm Copernicia cerifera.

Volatile Oils:

Volatile oils are a combination of simple molecules like isoprene or isopentane, which can mix in various ways to produce terpenes. It is a basic mix of 5 carbon molecules, sometimes with slight differences here and there. All this combines to make the volatile oils.

Volatile oils are mostly found in aromatic plants, herbs like peppermint and thyme are the perfect example of volatile oils. The combination of the oils and the smell can be in variations, even if they belong to the same types of the plant, basically, it all depends on the concentration of the oils. When these oils are extracted from the plants, the aromatic oils are produced, which are used for many therapeutic treatments, and the major part of the production is used to manufacture perfumes.

There is a wide range of aromatic oils and they each have specific qualities, though most of these oils have some common characteristics, which are worth learning about.

Most aromatic oils are antiseptics; oils like eucalyptus oil, garlic oil, and thyme oil fall under this category. These oils are absorbed with ease inside the body and they are effective for both internally and externally on the whole body system. When they are consumed internally or applied externally they land up finally in the urinary system, lungs, bronchial, sweat glands, saliva, tears or vaginal fluids. They can even occur in breast milk and during pregnancy can go to the placenta inside the fetus. Apart from having antiseptic functions, it can also encourage the creation of white blood cells, therefore increasing the immune system of the body.

Volatile oils have the quality of arousing the tissues they come in touch with, some oils like the mustard oils irritate the skin slightly while oils like menthol and camphor leave a numb feeling. Both these oils help in digestion arousing the lining of the colon which gives reflex reaction thus increasing the gastric juices to flow, which also makes the person feel hungry. People, who suffer from acute pain, can benefit from these oils by calming the peristalsis in the lower part of the intestines.

Volatile oils are also beneficial for the central nervous system. Oils like for example chamomile oil, are known to calm and sedate while peppermint oil helps in stimulation, both these oils have the quality so easing out any tension in the body system thus reducing conditions like depression or tension. When there is an external application of aromatic oils on the body, the aroma is easily transferred through the nose to the brain, triggering an instant reaction.

Herbs, which contain volatile oils, have to be retained by storing them carefully in sealed bottles or containers, as volatile oils can evaporate with ease.


There is a huge variety of carbohydrates in the plant kingdom, they are found in foods like sugar: fructose and glucose, they are also found in starches, which is the storage of the main energy and they can also be in the form of cellulose which is much more complex or elaborate, which helps in supporting the structure of the plants.

Large cellulose known as polysaccharides combines with other chemicals and produce molecules known as pectins, which are generally found in fruits like apples or even in seaweeds like algin, agar or even carragum, which are found in Irish moss. They are very effective and have the power to cure and are used in producing gels, which are further used in medicines and foods.

Gums and mucilage are carbohydrates, which are complex in nature and are retained in soothing and healing herbs like coltsfoot, plantain, and marshmallow. Once applied it relaxes the lining of the gut, arousing a reflex reaction that goes to the spinal nerves to areas like the lungs and the urinary tract. The mucilage not only reduces irritation, it even reduces inflammation of the alimentary canal, it also decreases the sensitivity of the gastric acids, can cure diarrhea and reduce peristalsis, it also cures the respiratory system, lessens coughing and tension, and increases the secretion of watery mucus.

Phenolic Compounds:

Phenol is a bulging block of many components of plants. The compounds of phenol could be simple in structure or could be a composite of a variety of basic molecule. One of the simplest phenolic compounds is salicylic acid, which is generally found in the combination of sugar, it forms glycoside found in willow, cramp bark, meadowsweet, and wintergreen. It functions as an antiseptic, painkiller and has anti-inflammatory functions too. It is utilized in most allopathic medicines like aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid is the main component if this medicine.

Eugenol oil is found in cloves and it functions like a painkiller, even thymol from thyme oil also cures pains, and both oils contain salicylic acid. Bearberry acts like an antiseptic on the urinary system of the body because it contains phenol hydroquinone.


Tannins in herbs have the quality to function as astringents. They act on proteins and other chemicals to protect the layer of the skin and the mucous membrane. It can even bind the tissue of the gut, decrease diarrhea and also stop any internal bleeding. They are also used for an external application like the treatment of burns, healing wounds and reducing inflammation. Tannins can cure eye infections like conjunctivitis or even infection in the mouth, vagina, cervix or rectum.


The evoking smell of hay is due to the coumarin chemicals. The grass is not the only plant, which contains this aromatic component of coumarins; sweet woodruff also contains these chemicals. Coumarins do not have much effect on the human body but one of its components known, as dicoumarol is a strong anti-clotting agent. Coumarins have been used extensively in allopathic medicine. Small doses of warfarin are used as an anti-clotting drug to cure conditions like thrombosis and as a rat poison, large doses are used.


Anthraquinones are found in plants, which are supposed to be effective laxatives and they are also natural dyes. They are generally glycosides and are found in plants like rhubarb, yellow dock, senna, aloe, and buckthorn. Anthraquinones stimulates the colon after eight to twelve hours of ingestion and they also stimulate the peristalsis of the intestine, all this can be achieved if the natural bile is present. If the colon is over stimulated, then colic pain could occur. Anthraquinones are usually combined with carminative herbs to cure this type of condition.

Flavones and Flavonoid Glycosides:

Flavones and flavonoid glycosides are chemical groups commonly found in most plant components. They can actively act as anti-spasmodic, diuretic, circulatory and cardiac stimulants. Some like rutin, hesperidin, and bioflavonoid vitamin P can aid circulatory system and decrease blood pressure too. Buckwheat is a herb, which can be used effectively for such health problems. Bioflavonoids help in absorption of vitamin C. Milk thistle is another herb, which has a strong presence of flavonoid and can cure an ailing liver.


Saponins have drawn the attention of majority pharmaceutical chemists in the world. They are utilized in the synthesis of cortisone, which is an anti-inflammatory drug, and they are also widely used in the synthesis of sex hormones. Saponins are found in herbs, which do not essentially act in a similar way, the body can use them as raw products to build the necessary chemicals. Natural saponins and synthesized drugs are quite similar, like cortisone and diosgenin, which is found in wild yam.

Golden rod, chickweed, figwort and wild yam all contain saponins, which are used to produce anti-inflammatory drugs. Saponins are very good in stimulating the upper digestive tract and herbs like primrose, mullein, violet and daisy are rich in saponins.

Cardiac glycosides:

Cardiac glycosides were discovered in 1785 in foxglove. A lot of investigations has taken place over this chemical component. They have a lot of similarities to saponins and are used in medicine to give support to heart problems.

Cardiac glycosides are made of a mixture of sugar and steroidal aglycone. The center of activity is charted out by the characteristics of aglycone. In the combination, sugar determines the bioavailability of aglycone, which is quite active.

Cardiac glycosides are found in most flowering plants. Lily of the valley, squill, foxglove and Strophanthus family are the best resources of cardiac glycosides. In therapeutic treatment, cardiac glycosides are very effective in increasing the force and power heart beats, and at the same time keeping the level of the oxygen intact for the heart muscles. They can help the heart to function in a steady manner without straining the organ.

Bitter principles:

Bitter principles stand for a group of chemicals that have an extremely bitter taste. They are diverse in structure and the bitterest ones are iridoids, terpenes, and other groups.

Bitter principles are known to be very effective in most therapeutic treatments. Through the taste bud, they arouse the secretion of the digestive juices and also help the liver to be more active, helping in hepatic elimination.

Sedatives like hops and valerian, cough remedies such as white horehound, anti-inflammatory herbs bogbean and devil’s claw, and the vulnerary marigold have all the properties of bitterness.


Alkaloids are the most powerful group of plant constituents that act effectively on the human body and mind. Under the category of alkaloids, you will find hallucinogen mescaline and the very poisonous brucine. These alkaloids can work on the liver, lungs, nerves and the digestive system of the body. You will find alkaloids in most of the herbs. Alkaloids inside the plants do not really have any specific function, apart from storing excessive nitrogen. Alkaloids as a group are very different in their structure and they have separated into 13 groups accordingly. Their structure is dominated by nitrogen and they have a distinguished physiological activity.

To encourage weight loss there is a supplement known as chitosan, which is basically a fat blocker. Chitosan is derived from chitin which is found in exoskeletons of shrimps and crabs, it is quite similar to plant fiber and cannot be digested easily. If chitosan is consumed orally it behaves like a big sponge absorbing the fat of the body up to four to six times than the body usually does while passing the digestive system. It helps flush out all the excessive fat of the body which could have been metabolized and settled inside the body. It is like you can eat as much as you want if you are consuming chitosan.

The disadvantage of chitosan is that it does not cure chronic overeating at all. It should only be consumed for two weeks at a time to just get a weight loss diet started. Chitosan can be very good in absorbing fat, but at the same time it can be quite harmful in the sense that it can rob the body of essential vitamins like E, A, D and K. If chitosan is consumed, diet supplements like vitamins and essential fatty acids should also be included in the diet too. According to studies, chitosan is considered quite safe for any weight loss program. A test was conducted on two mice, one was administered chitosan while the other was not, the mice which had consumed chitosan and other supplement diets had few precancerous lesions than the one who did not have chitosan at all. It can also lower total blood cholesterol level in the body and raise the level of HDL, known as the good cholesterol, which in turn protects the body against any heart disease. Chitosan is a versatile supplement, it is a good antacid and helps prevent tooth decay.